The Ethics of Santa

Many people
teach their small children the myth of Santa Claus:  that a magical being who lives at the North
Pole brings presents on Christmas Eve. 
Secondary aspects of the myth are that whether one receives presents is
a function of one’s behavior, and that you can communicate with Santa about
your preferences.  Not only parents, but
retail establishments and (I have recently discovered) public schools collude
in perpetuating this myth among children of a certain age.

 

Perpetuating
the Santa myth has at least these moral reasons against it:

 

  1. It
    involves a lot of lying and deception practiced on credulous people. 
  2. It tends to foster greed in children and contributes
    to their false impression that one’s happiness is determined by one’s material
    possessions.
  3. In telling children that the quantity and
    quality of one’s gifts are a function of one’s behavior, when actually they are
    a function of one’s socio-economic standing and parental temperament, it
    induces moral complacency in well-off children and false feelings of moral
    inferiority in less well-off children.

It seems to
me that these reasons are sufficient to show that perpetuating the Santa myth
is immoral.  Most of America strongly
disagrees with me on this point.  I would
be interested to know what the professionals at PEA Soup think.

30 Replies to “The Ethics of Santa

  1. I agree that there’s little to be said for attempting to inculcate literal false beliefs in Santa. But surely playful pretense is a perfectly legitimate way to engage with “the myth of Santa”. (I discuss this more in an old post, Is Santa a Lie?)

  2. My folks didn’t believe in lying to their kids, so I didn’t ever get told that Santa existed. But we did pretend believe in the manner Richard suggests. I recall making up stories about why there were so many Santas in evidence given that there was only supposed to be one Santa. It didn’t ruin the fun, so far as I can tell.
    While I think the policy of not lying to your kids about such things is perfectly advisable, I’m not sure I think it is wrong to take the opposite tack. I suppose what my parents did here in the long run was part of the formation of the very good relationship I had with them throughout my life until they died. But this wasn’t the only part of that. And since I don’t actually think lying is always wrong I think this is the kind of thing which can’t be assessed out of its context. What seems to me to matter is the overall pattern of how you interact. Maybe not lying about Santa, buys you a few surprise parties you can lie about.

  3. If children possessed the same cognitive abilities as adults, then I would agree that the Santa myth may be immoral.
    As it turns out, children are very concrete thinkers and the line between myth and reality is not well defined before the age of 8 or so. Given this, I believe the effects described in points 1, 2, and 3 are mitigated or non-existent.

  4. Huh.
    1) Parents at least arguably have a license to lie to their child for the child’s benefit (admittedly, this might be dubious, but some parents seem to think it instills a “sense of wonder” or some other such beneficial mental state).
    2) That’s less an objection to Santa than an objection to gift-giving in general. It’s hard to see how imagining that a rotund elf delivers presents makes one more materialistic than imagining that one’s parents do so.
    3) A child’s expectations are probably relative to the socioeconomic situation of his household, so that well-off children take more to experience themselves as rewarded for morality than poor children (assuming peer groups of similar SES).

  5. Perpetuating the Santa MYTH is fine, there being no general problem about telling fictions to one’s children, and indeed some strong moral reasons in favour of teaching one’s children the language-game of fictional narration from an early age. Normal children are of course quite happy participants in this language-game.
    What is morally problematic is perpetuating the Santa PRETENCE– telling your children ‘No, this isn’t just a story, there really is a Santa’. But how many parents actually do that? Certainly mine didn’t.
    But that wasn’t a rhetorical question; I’d be interested to know if anyone reports that his/ her parents did do this.

  6. Dale McGowan (author of Parenting Beyond Belief) argues that it’s an important rite of passage for children – that they learn that adults are not always correct in what they say.
    He uses it as a springboard to secularism, but it really applies to anything a child will hear from a person of authority (“This herbal remedy cured my gout!”):
    By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
    http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=3507

  7. This seems like a great opportunity to teach the wrong kind of reasons problem already from the early age. ‘No Ben, Santa won’t bring you the presents you asked if you are only not being naughty because of the loot you think you might get. The elfs will know that you are not really being nice. You also have to be nice for *the right reasons*… So, stop pulling your sister’s hair – it’s hurting her!’
    Also, I think one problem is that parents don’t seem to have that much control of these questions. There must be so much peer pressure on this for the kids to believe in Santa.
    I wish I could embed pictures here but there’s a great series of Calvin and Hobbes in which Calvin goes through a series of meditations about the philosophy and ethics of Santa Claus.
    Anyway, merry Christmas everyone and hope to see you at the APA.

  8. I’m carefully perpetuating the myth, but nearly anytime Santa is discussed we also talk about how there “is a little bit of Santa in everyone.” Then we talk about what we could do nice for others and DO IT. In the middle of summer my 5 year old said “let’s play santa and take her trashcans in” for an elderly neighbor. That works for me.
    I won’t stretch the truth out with the “no, there really is one, believe me or suffer” bit. Right now at 5 and 4 though they are 100% on board with Santa. By the way, their requests – a chapter book for the 5 year old and a hula hoop for the 4 year old. I felt pretty good when we wrote our letters. (The 4 year old did go back and add a Gear! game, but I’m still good with it.)
    It’s a fine line, but I’ve thought about it and I’m comfortable with my position.

  9. Are you kidding me?? Santa Claus is just a fun part of Christmas. No, he is not the essence of Christmas. That would be Jesus Christ whom we celebrate His coming as the true reason for Christmas.
    If you want to get on a soapbox about “greed in America” try getting on the case of unions and instant gratification ads on anything and everything that we have to endure every day and night on radio and television.

  10. This line of argument firmly rests in our modern celebrations of consumerism–I wonder if the same logic could be applied a century, or even half a century ago. The heightened emphasis on “love-manifest-in-dollars-spent” in this culture, as well as the growing divide between rich and poor, seems to lend credence to your description of the “Santa Myth” in American culture, but I can see how a different way of applying the myth could work toward some good end concerning the moral formation of children. It isn’t all bad. Besides, the roots of the “Santa Myth” reach back to a man who gave selflessly of himself to poor children in his community. Perhaps a deeper remembering and telling of where “Santa” has his roots might do us some good.
    This discussion reminds me of one strain of moral thought. Doing good to maximize pleasure (receiving good gifts) is utilitarianism, an ethical theory that still has its champions, as well as its critics. Perhaps those writing here from an academic perspective could tease that out.

  11. A related question: Being Jewish, my parents told me there’s no Santa Claus (when I came asking them who this guy is that other children keep talking about). But, they said, don’t tell the other kids, because it’ll ruin their holiday. So the question is, Should Jewish parents tell their kids to sweep the truth under the rug when talking to their non-Jewish friends (and lie, if the situation calls for it), or should Jewish parents allow their kids to inform the deceived and thereby upset the non-Jewish child and his/her parents?

  12. Let’s get rid of fictional works of all types. While we’re at it, let’s absolve ourselves of anything that has any negative ramifications.
    I will start by no longer reading ridiculous blog entries.

  13. There were very good points made in this blog. I grew up with all the traditional holiday lies including Santa. I chose not to ever lie to my child and after 15 years, I still haven’t. I didn’t think too deeply about the points you mentioned, it was just a decision to never lie. I also explained to my daughter that other people have a variety of beliefs and traditions and that it was for those families to explain about Santa to their children and not for you to tell them. She never told anyone there was or wasn’t a Santa. That little girl had learned respect for other people’s very early on. That said, my honesty almost backfired when she as a little girl had been told by the school, advertisements and her peers that there was a Santa. At one point she started to believe that I was lying saying that there wasn’t! Now 15, she told me when she was little she thought if there was a Santa, he would have to break in through her bedroom window to get in since we had no chimney. That creeped her out! I always wonder about children from other beliefs and what they must think about the other children believing in this fat man in a red suit has flying reindeer.

  14. I agree and actually just argued this myself on my personal blog. I can’t get over the fact that it’s lying to children. And no, this isn’t lying to them “for their own good”, it’s doing it for your own benefit in saying “aw isn’t that cute?” and usig it as leverage to get them to behave. Jewish children (and those of other faiths) don’t seem the least bit scarred by not having the “santa experience” so I dont’ think there’s a benefit to it. And to the above commenter who said people usually don’t actually come right out and lie, I do think most parents outright lie and say Santa is real, especially if the kids start to question it young (“of course Santa is real, don’t be silly”).

  15. I absolutely could not lie to my daughter about Santa Claus. I did not want her to get the idea that children of other faiths — who Santa does not visit — have somehow been bad.
    Nor could I stomach how Christmas-centric the public schools are–all of it revolving around the Santa Claus myth, since they can’t focus on the Jesus bit. When my daughter was in kindergarten, they watched a different Christmas special (“they’re rated G! said her teacher) every day of December. I suggested that this was teaching the children in the class that Christianity was the only right religion. She responded by printing out a lesson on Hanukkah and handing it to me, in case I wanted to educate my child at home.
    The school had a winter party with a Christmas theme. I objected. “But the theme is reindeer!” said the school principle. Hello! Rudolph! That’s Christmas.
    It’s been seven years, and I’m still angry about it!

  16. Here’s an interesting article that touches on Santa. Other research I’ve read suggests that children’s ability to distinguish real from imaginary starts fairly young and that when they talk about imaginary friends being real, it’s along the same lines as fiction writers who speak of their characters becoming real and dictating story lines that the writer hadn’t envisioned.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703344704574610002061841322.html

  17. Heath,
    Interesting post, and appropriate for the season! Now onto your reasons…
    With regard to reason (2), are you objecting to the impression that one’s happiness is wholly determined by one’s material possessions, or that one’s material possessions play a partial role in one’s happiness? The former appears false, but the latter I’m not entirely sure one way or the other. Certainly the material goods I possess do not wholly determine my happiness, but it does seem to be the case that the material goods I possess do contribute in some way to my happiness. Are you pushing a view where one’s happiness is completely separated from one’s material possessions?

  18. My daughter is 8 months old, so I don’t tell her things, and she doesn’t ask me things. But when such things become possible, I will never tell her that there is a person called Santa Claus, and if she ever asks me if there is such a person, I’ll respond truthfully.
    I might well lie to her about some other things, but I can’t imagine why I’d pick *Santa* as an exception to the usual “don’t lie to your kids” rule. Even if there’s some fun to be had on both sides, I don’t think that fun is a weighty enough reason to deceive one’s child.
    And I don’t think that the “telling stories isn’t lying” response helps us out very much here. Sure, it’s fine to read/tell stories to children and even to talk about fictional characters, e.g., “Peter Rabbit would love that salad, wouldn’t he?” But the way people discuss and pretend to believe the fiction that Santa visits houses and distributes presents — and that *those* presents were in fact brought by Santa — is different, and I’ll have no part of it.
    Merry December 25!

  19. I tend to think that lying to children is not good and I tend to think that Waldorf is a cult. However, Waldorf has some stuff to say about childhood imagination that I do buy into.
    When your 10 year old asks why the moon changes shape, tell her the truth.
    But when your 3 year old asks, tell them about the great whale that gobbles up the moon each month.
    Different brains require different food to make them whole.

  20. What a humorless concern. There is nothing immoral with using your imagination, or using a fictional character to do acts of anonymous love.
    Seriously, focus on something truly immoral, like giving murderers free medical care in prison, but letting the non-criminal homeless die. Calling the Santa stories immoral is stretching the term to meaninglessness.

  21. You tell ’em, Rick!
    You can use me to “do acts of anonymous love” anytime. Seriously. I won’t say it’s immoral if you don’t …

  22. Don,
    We weren’t going to ruin it for you, but since you’ve been such a schmuck about spoiling our little make-believe game, we figured, screw ‘im.

  23. I worry about what to say about *that* make-believe game, too. When my daughter eventually asks me what “should” means, what do I say?
    (a) You should x = Do x!
    (b) You should x = It’s your duty to x.
    (c) You should x = You have reason to x. (What’s a “reason”?)
    (d) You should x = Doing x will make you and others happier.
    (e) You should x = If you don’t x, Santa won’t bring you the Superstar Barbie Idol Ninja you want.
    Maybe I should just punt that one to my wife.

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